Resting starters has just backfired on Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in his club's journey to an FA Cup championship. Playing without Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Lukas Podolski in the starting 11, Arsenal fell to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, 1-0, in their fifth-round battle at Emirates Stadium.
Blackburn Rovers' game-winning goal came on a beautiful strike from Colin Kazim-Richards from the left side in the 72nd minute. It was a goal that shocked many in the stands and on the pitch, as Arsenal's side had dominated for most of the contest.
The loss knocks Wenger's side out of the FA Cup far earlier than anyone expected and will surely draw the ire of the Gunners faithful. In preparation for Tuesday's midweek Champions League cap, Wenger made the executive decision to sit many of his top players.
On the surface, the move made sense. Blackburn Rovers possess far less talent than even most of Arsenal's substitutes, and it stood to reason that the Gunners could still pull out a victory at their home field.
Well, as Kazim-Richards' goal showed, anything can happen on the pitch.
Throughout most of the contest, Wenger's strategy seemed to be working. Arsenal dominated the ball, taking a majority of the possession and peppering Blackburn Rovers' side with consistent attacks. The Gunners took a total of 26 shots (12 on-goal), nearly all of which from attacking positions, compared to just six (three on-goal) for Blackburn Rovers.
Goalkeeper Jake Kean, undoubtedly the man of the match, would have none of Arsenal's goal attempts. He stopped every shot that came his way, and the Blackburn Rovers defense did a fantastic job of blocking shots when Arsenal went in deep.
The Gunners defense could not quite do the same. Blackburn Rovers' goal came on a rebound attempt during which no Arsenal defenders were anywhere near Kazim-Richards.
The score also came just two minutes after Wenger, perhaps sensing impending doom, sent out Walcott and Wilshere as substitutes in the 70th minute. However, it was obvious that neither player was anywhere close to top form, and they could not create an attack in the waning minutes.
It was a loss that will prevent Arsenal from getting a trophy this season. But more than that, many will view it as a wholly preventable defeat that lies at the feet of Wenger.
Tyler Duffy of The Big Lead was one of Arsenal's staunchest critics following the loss. He likened the team to nothing more than a "revenue stream":
CNN's Piers Morgan, who has a habit of delving into the sports realm from time to time, had a pretty apt comparison for Saturday starter Gervinho:
Piers Morgan @piersmorgan
Gervinho - the new Santos. #Arsenal2/16/2013, 4:12:05 PM
Though Arsenal's loss will come as a shock to many, perhaps it shouldn't. BBC TV's Jacqui Oatley noted the Gunners' penchant for early FA Cup exits:
Jacqui Oatley @JacquiOatley
Since #Arsenal last won the FA Cup 8 years ago, they've only reached the quarter-finals twice. #afc2/16/2013, 5:01:16 PM
Meanwhile, it was a celebratory time for Blackburn Rovers. Football Away Days' Twitter feed had a nice photo of the fans in attendance cheering on their side after the match:
Football Away Days @AwayDays_
Blackburn fans at the Emirates. #brfc http://t.co/Zy0DAA2Q2/16/2013, 5:13:58 PM
Jake Kean, Blackburn Rovers: A
Though there were many who stepped up their games on Saturday, no one did so more than Kean. He was utterly brilliant, playing his position at a near-perfect level and stopping every shot that came his way.
Clean sheets are oftentimes the calling card to an "A" grade. Kean's performance was so good that I considered breaking a rule and adding a plus sign before remembering this isn't third-grade spelling.
Gervinho, Arsenal: D
Substituted out for Walcott in the 70th minute, Gervinho struggled, and it was obvious from the opening minute. Just one of his three shots went on goal, and he failed to advance the attack far too often.
The loss doesn't fall directly at Gervinho's feet, but his performance Saturday will do little to quell Arsenal's oft-criticized substitute.
Colin Kazim-Richards, Blackburn Rovers: A-
Call it a "right place, right time" goal if you like, but Blackburn Rovers' victory on Saturday was not possible without Kazim-Richards. He was responsible for just one shot against Arsenal, and his side wasn't exactly an aggressor during the match, but sometimes the importance of one moment outweighs everything else.
Nevertheless, Blackburn Rovers fans will certainly hope for a more complete performance next time out. Kazim-Richards' goal gets him toward a perfect grade, but his foul committed knocks him down a bit.
Olivier Giroud, Arsenal: B
On the bright side for the Gunners, not everyone had the worst game of his life. Giroud was his always-solid self throughout the match, hammering two shots on goal and helping lead the attack when Gervinho stalled.
He certainly won't put his stat-line on his mantle at home, but Giroud can at least take solace in not being among the biggest reasons his side was eliminated from the FA Cup.
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